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A short history of British TV advertising

Published: 5 November 2020

Advertising on television has changed dramatically since its early days, but great adverts always stick with us. Find out how television and commercials have influenced each other over 65 years of TV advertising in the UK.

1950s: Early TV commercials in Britain

Television advertising in the UK began on 22 September 1955 with the launch of ITV, the first commercial channel and competitor for the BBC. ITV’s first contractor, Associated Rediffusion, went on air, broadcasting to London on weekdays.

The first commercial was for Gibbs SR toothpaste. It featured a tube of toothpaste, a block of ice and a commentary about the product’s ‘tingling fresh’ qualities. Its style is jerky and uncertain. Typical of the early adverts, any single frame could be used with a written caption as a newspaper advert.

Early commercials were rather different from those we’re familiar with today. Of course, they were in black and white, as all television was to begin with. But they were also much longer, more stilted and more harshly lit than today’s adverts. They had white middle-class actors, values and accents, and their message was spelled out with agonising slowness. In effect, they were simply moving newspaper adverts. 

The first Persil adverts were actually adapted from their familiar posters, with dancers and sailors in different shades of white and the announcer reassuring us that: ‘Persil washes whiter. That means cleaner.’

This staid style was partly a result of Britain’s lack of experience in television advertising. But, more importantly, it was because the UK television industry was concerned not to appear too American.

The morning after the first commercials appeared, Bernard Levin wrote in the Manchester Guardian:

I feel neither depraved nor uplifted by what I have seen... certainly the advertising has been entirely innocuous. I have already forgotten the name of the toothpaste.

‘Coincidentally’ the BBC had chosen the same evening as the launch of ITV to kill off Grace Archer in its long-running radio soap The Archers, thus stealing the next day’s newspaper headlines. 

It was extraordinary that the BBC should feel the need to go to such lengths when most commentators gave the new ITV station little chance of success. ITV’s detractors claimed it would be too American, the British public would not want their programmes interrupted by adverts, and it would never be as good as the BBC. In any case, ITV was only available in London.

Nonetheless, television advertising had arrived in Britain.

1960s: Establishing the standard ad format

The format of the presenter commercial was arrived at very quickly. The presenter—often a personality with whom viewers would be familiar from popular programmes or the theatre—would appear using the product and extolling its virtues, perhaps with the aid of a chart or ‘scientific’ demonstration.

At the end, a sincere out-of-vision announcer would recap why that presenter had chosen the product. This was a popular, easy-to-write format that could be produced with minimal sets and therefore low costs. Despite this simplicity, many of the early presenters seemed to confuse shouting with communicating.

There were also experiments in the no-man’s-land between advertisement and editorial, with ‘time spots’ and ‘ad mags’.

In time spots, an advertiser would tie in their product with the announcement of the time. ‘Time to light a red-and-white’, claimed one cigarette manufacturer. Other punctual advertisers were Ever-rite watches, Saxa salt, Burberry and Aspro aspirin. The Independent Television Authority (ITA) regarded the time spots as annoying and abolished them in December 1960.

Advertising magazines or ‘ad mags’ were created to encourage small advertisers who couldn’t afford an ad slot of their own. They had a loose story format, with each episode featuring a collection of products. The most famous was Jim’s Inn, set in a pub with Jimmy and Maggie Hanley as the publicans.

Jimmy Hanley as Jim in Jim’s Inn
Jimmy Hanley as Jim in Jim’s Inn

Jim’s Inn first appeared in spring 1957 and ran for 300 editions. It relied on a strong and believable storyline, recognisable characters and the warm personality of the landlord—almost like a mini soap opera. Wide ranges of products, from the familiar to the outlandish, were skilfully woven together each week.

After the demise of the ad mag format in 1963, Jimmy Hanley appeared with Maggie running ‘Jim’s Stores’ in a series of adverts for Daz washing powder, continuing the successful mix of popular proprietor and ‘good’ advice.

Until the 1970s, the advertisers’ approach was very much to tell the viewer why they should use that product. The style changed in the 1970s, with viewers being invited to share in the lifestyles and values of the characters using the product on screen.

Whether thanks to the introduction of colour spurring people on to new heights of creativity, or simply because viewers were now television-literate and demanded higher production values, adverts in the 1970s were noticeably different from what went before.

1970s: New products, new adverts

The products advertised on television have changed over the years. In the 1950s, advertising was dominated by soap powder manufacturers and food brands. Into the 1960s, there was little car advertising due to a secret cartel agreement between the manufacturers (and virtually no alcoholic spirits advertising, for the same reason). In the 1970s, however, the car manufacturer Datsun arrived from Japan and broke the cosy agreement between Ford, Vauxhall, Chrysler and British Leyland not to advertise.

Smash Martians on display in the Animation Gallery at the National Science and Media Museum Science Museum Group Collection
Smash Martians on display in the Animation Gallery at the National Science and Media Museum

The 1970s also brought us the Smash Martians, the Heineken lager campaign and the Hamlet cigar adverts. Old favourites remained on the screen, often with a new twist to liven up a familiar product. For example, Katie, the matriarch of the ‘Oxo Family’ who had appeared in ads for the stock cubes since the late 1950s, was sent to the USA to explain all about Oxo to her new American friends. This helped to give an added gloss to a well-known brand.

Newspapers began to use television too. Prompted by the successful relaunch of The Sun with its enormous expenditure on live commercials, the Mirror followed suit. 

Towards the end of the 1970s, corporate advertising started to appear. Chemicals company ICI were the first with their ‘The Pathfinders’ and ‘Ideas in Action’ campaigns, adverts which used potent symbols of progress like Concorde to enhance their image.

1980s onwards: Regulating TV advertising

In the 1980s, advertising changed again. New outlets for the message arrived in the form of Channel 4 and breakfast television. But there were also cultural changes brought about by Thatcherism. The possibility of advertising on the BBC replacing the licence fee was strongly suggested by the Adam Smith Institute. It declared that moves must be made

away from the licence fee to other forms of finance... there can be little future for a system which discriminates against the paying viewer in favour of the decisions of the bureaucrat.

The report went on to recommend that cigarette advertising, banned in 1965, should be reinstated and that the ban on advertising of betting and other prohibited categories (e.g. undertakers, charities, religious institutions) be removed. 

Similar arguments about the licence fee have resurfaced in recent years, though the BBC still does not carry advertising. The ban on tobacco advertising remains in place, but the first advert for an undertaker appeared on 8 November 1993, during an early evening episode of Scottish soap opera Take the High Road, and adverts for betting companies can regularly be seen on screen—albeit now with wellbeing warnings against excessive gambling.

National Gambling Aware advertisement
National Gambling Aware advertisement, 2014

Interactive adverts started to appear in the late 1980s. The first was an advert for Mazda cars. Viewers were instructed to video record the ad and play it back frame by frame; on doing so, they were able to take part in a competition to win a car. The bank First Direct experimented with running ads simultaneously on ITV and Channel 4; by switching between the two channels, viewers could see either a positive or a negative outcome to the story. Neither of these adverts was truly interactive, but they did force viewers to become more involved.

Television advertising today

Television advertising has come a long way since 1955. Many products have disappeared from our screens and been replaced by ones undreamt of 65 years ago. Products and the marketing methods used to sell them change, and what was acceptable to audiences in the past may not be so today—for example, Typhoo teabags ceased to be promoted by trained chimps in 2002.

Advertisers still try to push the boundaries, and the Advertising Standards Authority exists to enforce the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (BCAP Code) and to investigate complaints against advertisers who may have breached this code.

In a world of multiple media platforms, some of which (such as subscription channels) do not show traditional ‘television’ advertisements, many adverts can still hit the mark and resonate with audiences. Some television adverts have become events in their own right, like the epic and increasingly sentimental Christmas adverts produced by major departments stores and supermarkets such as John Lewis.

Advertisements can now merchandise tie-ins: Compare the Market’s cuddly meerkats have become a brand in themselves, separate from the product the ad was originally created to sell. They can also create new media stars and hit records, such as ‘Flat Beat’ by Mr Oizo, used in this Levi’s ad from 1999 featuring the puppet Flat Eric.

Cadbury Dairy Milk ‘Gorilla’ commercial, 2007
Cadbury Dairy Milk ‘Gorilla’ commercial, 2007

Great adverts live on in the viewer’s memory no matter when they were made or first seen: Solvite’s flying man, Everest Double Glazing’s falling feather, Fiat’s robots, the Milky Bar Kid, Go Compare’s singer or Cadbury’s gorilla. So too do their slogans: ‘Don’t forget the Fruit Gums, Mum’, ‘Because I’m worth it’, ‘Beanz meanz Heinz’ or ‘Simples’.

Further reading

BOOKS

  • Maire Messenger Davies, Television is Good for Your Kids, 1989
  • Jo Gable, The Tuppenny Punch and Judy Show: 25 Years of TV Commercials, 1980
  • Brian Henry, British Television Advertising: The First 30 Years, 1986
  • Hilary Kingsley and Geoff Tibballs, Box of Delights, 1989
  • Maureen Lipman and Richard Phillips, You Got an Ology?, 1989
  • Nod Miller, And Now for the BBC, 1991 (Chapter 3)
  • John Montgomery, Arthur: The Television Cat, 1975
  • Brian Sibley, The Book of Guinness Advertising, 1985
  • Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising, 1978

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